80’s Trash of the Week: Night Shift

Love Brokers!

Michael Keaton might be best remembered as Batman, or Mr. Mom, or Beetlejuice, but he got his start in movies with Night Shift, with ex-Fonzie Henry Winkler. Directed by fellow “Happy Days” refugee Ron Howard and penned by 80’s staples Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. This movie was on HBO approximately every 5 minutes in the 80’s, and I watched it nearly every time. When it popped on Mojo+ HD- your cable source for movies even HBO won’t play anymore– I decided to see if it lived up to my nostalgic adulations.

Batman 2.0 vs. the Fonz

Risky Business is probably the better-known killer pimp comedy, but Night Shift led the way. In the opening scene, we see two toughs throw a pimp out a window, comically landing in a basketball hoop. One of them is Richard Belzer, a comedian whose biggest role prior to this was in 70’s skit comedy The Groove Tube. At first we’re not sure whether we’re supposed to laugh or not, and then one of the kids playing ball says that shot should count, so we know it’s okay to chuckle at the pimp splattered on the pavement. New York in the early 80’s was still a tough town.

Slam dunk!

Shortly after we meet Chuck Lumley, a doormat of a morgue technician who’s getting stepped on by his boss, his fiancé, and the city. Back then it was a surprise to see “The Fonz” playing a nebbish, but he handled the role with aplomb, channeling Woody Allen but making the role his own. His boss bullies him into taking the titular graveyard shift, where he gets partnered with Keaton’s Bill “Blaze” Blazejowsky, the hyperactive doofus who has so many wacky ideas he carries a tape recorder to save them all. Great ideas like feeding mayonnaise to tuna fish, so you don’t need to add it to make tuna salad.

Ron Howard’s bro Clint gets the best boobies.

He’s a schemer who starts using the hearses to chauffeur people around the city, like Ron’s brother Clint Howard. This movie’s so old that Clint had some hair left on that big melon of his. He’s always a fine addition to a comedy in my book. Another 80’s icon who appears is Shelley Long, as Chuck’s neighbor Belinda- who just happens to be a call girl working out of her apartment, whose pimp was slam dunked in the opening scene. Now, I know the obvious joke is how the hell could Shelley Long make a living as a hooker? But she looked pretty good here, dolled up in sexy gear and acting appropriately perky. We meet her when Chuck goes next door to ask her to turn the music down, and gets roughed up by a huge cowboy in his underwear, a precursor to Times Square’s naked cowboy.

Before Cheers, she was a total whore.

Later, when Belinda needs help getting bailed out, she calls Chuck during Thanksgiving dinner. Being the pushover he is, he goes and his fiancé (well-played by Gina Hecht as a henpecking nightmare) follows with her parents. Once they find out what his friend does for a living, there is considerable strain on the relationship. This gives Blazejowsky one of his signature ideas- why not run call girls out of the morgue? With his gumption and Chuck’s financial wizardry, they could all be rolling in dough. Belinda gets her working girls in for the deal, and soon Blaze is rolling like a pimp in a Stutz Blackhawk luxobarge, and Chuck is getting ulcers worrying whether they’ll get caught. Their success of course raises the suspicions of the two killers from the beginning, so the cops are the least of their worries.


There are some good jokes in the movie, and Keaton had loads of comic energy back then. He plays well off of the Fonz, and Shelley Long plays the role completely straight, and is at least as believable as Jamie Lee Curtis’s whore with a heart of gold from Trading Places, even if she couldn’t fill Jame’s bountiful brassiere with her ass cheeks. Gina Hecht has the thankless role as the frigid, neurotic fiance who disappears halfway through the movie, but she makes the most of it. It’s also the film debut of Kevin Costner, who you can see in the frat party scene. Howard wisely shows us a decent amount of boobs; in a movie about hookers you’d feel cheated otherwise, and this one delivers.

Charming 80’s New York hookers

The movie has a great tone, and its vision of New York has a touch of the sentimental- even though we get a tour of 42nd Street pre-Disney era, it feels more like They Might Be Giants than Taxi Driver. That’s expected of a comedy, but it’s a nice touch; it would be easy to make New York too smarmy, and thankfully there are no Typical Jewish Old Ladies, Brooklyn Policeman, Funny Black Homeless Guy or other 80’s urban staples. The rude delivery boys (Vincent Schiavelli), the persistent buskers who stick their saxophone in Chuck’s face, and the killer pimps never seem too cruel, even when they shove a fire hose down Fonzie’s throat.

Who wants to drink from the fire hose?

The film doesn’t glamorize prostitution, either- Shelly Long comes home with a black eye, so this is no Pretty Woman. Howard and the scriptwriters don’t make the violent scenes very funny, but instead juxtapose them with a funny ending, like a bunch of Girl Scouts beating Chuck with their cookie boxes, or having a pimp shoot himself in the foot during a gunfight, in a believable manner- when pulling a gun from an ankle holster. The ending loses steam, but it’s great to see Michael Keaton do his hyper dummy act, which would eventually be crafted into classic performances like Beetlejuice. The movie spends a little too much time showing us how Chuck grows a spine, but this movie holds up well. If you haven’t seen it, you should give it a shot- I miss Funny Guy Michael Keaton, and wish he’d get another chance to do comedy.

Extra helping of boobies.

Beers Required to Enjoy: 1
Could it be remade today? It would seem quaint
Quotability Rating: Medium
Cheese Factor: Low
High Points: Michael Keaton’s antics
Low Point: Ending drags
Gratuitous Boobies: 4 distinct pairs to make up for Shelley Long’s AA cups

Sweet 70’s Cinema: Over the Edge

No, not Over the Hedge with the talking squirrel. This is a serious movie about juvenile delinquency in the 70’s, a warning cry like other fine films such as Foxes, River’s Edge, and Bad Boys (the Sean Penn one). It’s a cautionary tale that leans toward exploitation film, but since it was directed by Jonathan Kaplan, a student of Marty Scorsese, the film has a very realistic feel, almost verité. It’s still good viewing today, has Matt Dillon’s first screen role, and would make a good double feature with any 70’s nostalgia film such as Dazed and Confused.

Young Matt Dillon

The film itself has a sordid story of its own. Supposedly based on true events that occurred in the planned community of Foster City California, it leads in with a lurid disclaimer about how it is based on true events, and how many acts of criminal vandalism by juveniles occur in the U.S. each year. Still, the movie was so controversial that it never got a theatrical release, and instead played on HBO in 1980. The action was moved to the fictional city of New Granada, a planned community that has been demolishing its few youth centers to make way for more profitable businesses, in the wake of 70’s stagflation. The script was written by Tim Hunter, who’d later go on to pen the bleaker and better-known River’s Edge, and Charles Haas, a journalist who wrote about the original events in an article called “Mouse Packs: Kids on a Crime Spree.”

The Mouse Pack

Our first introduction to the town’s kids is at the Youth Center, a hangar-like building where they hang around. It’s painfully obvious that there isn’t much to do in this town, and everything seems spread out so you have to drive or bike everywhere. Two kids are on an overpass with a BB gun and they shoot the windshield of a passing police car, who nearly crashes, then gives chase. As the cruiser flies toward the Rec center, two other kids, Carl and Ritchie, hide in the bushes. The cop arrests them on suspicion, and finds a switchblade in Richie’s pocket. Matt Dillon plays Richie as the standard rebellious youth; what he lacks in depth he fills with anarchic energy. I didn’t even recognize him in this early role, and it shows the promise he’d later realize. Carl is the smaller kid who’s always getting dumped on- reminiscent of Ratner from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He’s played well by Michael Eric Kramer, who never saw stardom after this. It’s unfortunate, he plays this part naturally, and we follow him throughout the film.

Mommy’s alright, Daddy’s alright

Later on their parents pick them up and they get the usual lectures, even though technically they did nothing wrong. The parents are more concerned with the weekend of visit of some Texas millionaires who might invest in the town and solve their financial problems. Carl heads to his room and puts on his headphones, blaring Cheap Trick’s classic teen lament, “Surrender.” The film’s soundtrack is excellent, mostly peppered with lesser known late 70’s classics from Cheap Trick and The Cars, with a few others like “Teenage Lobotomy” by The Ramones and “You Really Got Me” covered by Van Halen. Anthems of the era, which really puts you back in the time. It’s unfortunate when teen films like this use older songs or covers of them; years later, they’ll lose any possible nostalgic value.

Note the leaf on the blackboard

Back at school they are forced to watch an educational film about vandalism, but the principal just yells at their implacable wall of adolescent apathy, and announced a 9:30pm curfew. Later that night the kids go to a party, make out, drink beer, smoke pot, and pass around other drugs; at first it’s shocking, especially when you see the tow-headed youngster Tip smoking and dealing. They culled some of the actors and extras from the local town, and this gives the film a documentary feel. As Ebert stated in his 1980 review, it almost feels like we’re eavesdropping, or a kid is lugging around a camcorder. (We had them back then, but they weighed 50 pounds). Sometimes there’s a gritty, small-time mood like in Scorsese’s Mean Streets, and you can see the mentor’s touch here. At the party, Carl meets his girlfriend Cory, and they smoke a joint; as he leaves, he gets ambushed by Mark the BB gun kid, who thinks he snitched on him. He and some friends beat Carl up and take his money.

The 70’s classic, Destruction: Fun or Dumb?

Carl just can’t get a break; back at home his parents are more upset that he got in more trouble than why he’s getting beaten up. The parents are clueless but aren’t played as idiots; they are just too caught up in their own lives and dealings, and seem to think that kids raise themselves. The next day, Carl lashes out at his Dad by setting firecrackers off underneath the Texans’ car, setting the engine on fire, and of course, torpedoing the business deal. The parents then announce that the Youth center will be shutting down a while, since a kid was caught with drugs there. This gives the kids even fewer options to stay out of trouble, and after an argument with his Dad, Carl runs out to hole up in one of the unfinished condos with his girlfriend.

Aimed right at you

One of the girls in their pack stole a gun from her parents bedroom, and they practice shooting cans out in “the fields.” They use all the bullets, but later decide to play a prank on Tip, who ratted out Carl to Mark the other night. Richie echoes Dillon’s later role in The Outsiders by running around pointing an empty gun at people; this leads where you expect it will, and forces the parents to confront the problems of the town at a big meeting at the school. Who’s watching the children during the meeting, you might ask?

Echoes of a Nuremburg rally

From here the film follows a more predictable track, but thankfully we are spared any tearful or overly insightful monologues by Carl or any of the other kids. Kaplan is smart enough to let us draw our own conclusions from the performances, and realize that these kids are facing a profound emptiness from both their parents and the community; we don’t need a rehash of James Dean’s emotional outburst in Rebel Without a Cause; this film follows that classic’s arc closely enough, with Dillon channeling Sal Mineo sans the not-so-latent homosexuality.

Burn it down

Of course with the parents all in one location, the kids decide to lock them in. I was hoping that the film would veer towards the surreal ending of Lindsay Anderson’s If… with them burning the building down, but it never gets that bad. The kids do go all “Lord of the Flies” in a matter of minutes, blowing up police cars with stolen guns and fireworks, stealing cars and wreaking havoc. It seems out of place, and spirals far out of control, with a finale that seems more at home in something like Vanishing Point or Crazy Larry Dirty Mary.

Lord of the Flies

What detracts from an otherwise excellent 70’s mood film is the ending, and expository dialogue such as the Texan stating, “Seems like you were in such a hopped-up hurry to get out of the city that you turned your kids into exactly what you wanted to get away from.” It’s deserving of its cult status and succeeds when we’re hanging with the kids; it brought me back to my early youth in the 70’s, when we often had nothing to do except romp in our “fields,” smash up abandoned cars, and cut down trees with tools we lifted from unminded basements. But our little “mixed use” community was tightly knit; we had legions of old ladies sitting on porches to keep us from climbing on the rooftops of disused factories, or other shenanigans. This was a neighborhood so dull that everyone would come out and look when the old greenhorn found a garter snake in his garden and cut its head off with a shovel; the only one of us who went wrong was a kid named Travis whose parents were never around, leaving him to cruise the area on his Huffy, and steal from backyard gardens to eat some meals. One day he decided to throw a cinder block at another kid’s head, probably because that kid didn’t have to eat raw tomatoes for lunch that day. New Granada in Over the Edge was a whole comunity of little Travises, so perhaps the ending isn’t too unreal.

If you want more detail on the film, it has an extensive fan site.

The Dark Knight

There will be a sea of nerds waxing superfluous about the utter success of this film; I’m afraid I am among them. Any movie as hyped as this one will generate backlash, and some will anticipate it and thrive on it. We are so easily jaded by our entertainment. The Dark Knight is beyond mere spectacle and elevates the superhero movie beyond all previous heights, as its material dives into the darkest depths, going into the abyss we never expected “comic book movies” to go. It builds a tragedy worthy of Greek myth and sets it in a complex, living Gotham as real as one of James Ellroy’s crime epics.

The Nolan brothers wisely delve into the rich past of the Batman character and pluck many of the best themes from the classic stories- the rise of fellow vigilantes, the misguided “Sons of the Batman” from The Dark Knight Returns; the Joker as the agent of disorder, pushing those with moral codes to the precipice of breaking them, from The Killing Joke; the concerns about surveillance from Kingdom Come. The script is definitely the best of the superhero crop, surpassing such classics as the original Superman as it weaves the tale of the Batman, District Attorney Harvey Dent– the white knight of Gotham, and the Joker.

There’s a glimmer of hope in Gotham when we return; Detective Gordon is now running an elite squad, D.A.’s Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes are putting high-profile mobsters away, and Bruce Wayne and Alfred are rebuilding the Manor, operating from a concealed bunker. The movie opens with a bravura heist sequence inspired by Michael Mann’s Heat, where the Joker’s minions rip off a mob bank. Batman is hunting down the top dogs in the crime world, one being a money launderer he follows to Hong Kong; while he’s away, the Joker hires himself out to the crime bosses, to eliminate their nemesis.

Heath Ledger’s Joker is more theatrical psychopath than clown; with his grungy make-up, and scarred cheeks recalling the old silent film The Man Who Laughs that inspired the character, he carves a swath through the underworld because he’ll do things even they won’t. His war with Batman is full of surprises, and seems more at home in a thriller like the Bourne Trilogy– lethally cunning ambushes that would be an assassination plot worthy of their own movie. They come one after another, and the films 152 minute running time only drags long enough to for the Joker to pull the rug out from under us- again. No one is safe, and by the end of the movie you’ll realize that like the villain, the Nolan brothers through the rules out the window when they wrote the script.

The emotional turmoil that Bruce Wayne and his allies go through is as terrorizing as the bombs going off left and right. There’s even a dash of Seven in the mix, when the Joker rigs up two ferries with explosives, and gives each group the other’s detonator; if one of them doesn’t blow up the other, he’ll detonate both of them at midnight. The resolution is pretty daring, and recalls The Killing Joke, when Jim Gordon was the target. The brutality is leavened with dark humor- the Joker in a nurse outfit, and of course the steadying hands of those two great actors, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman.

They’re back as the butler who gives Batman his center, and the inventor who gives him his gadgets, and while their roles are reduced this time, they are given memorable, irreplaceable moments. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Aaron Eckhart cover the lawyer roles with aplomb; Gotham’s white knight is no cardboard cut-out. But the movie isn’t all thrilling plot and fine acting- we get our share of action movie excitment as well. The Batmobile returns and is trumped by the faster, more maneuverable Bat-pod, which looks a lot like that 4-wheel motorcycle concept Dodge based off the Viper. He pulls some amazing tricks with it as he duels with the Joker in a ten-wheeler on Lower Wacker Drive in Chicago.

I did not see it in IMAX, but I will be, as soon as the local theaters aren’t all sold out. The movie is a marvel of editing, and if the Nolans ever tire of the franchise they can give Michael Mann a run for his money in the gritty crime movie genre, but he still has them on style. Is the movie perfect? The ending is. Like the comics I mentioned, The Dark Knight shows the Joker and Batman as two sides of the same coin, and this one lands right on the edge- they each own this film, and who truly wins in the end will be discussed on message boards and on the way out of the theater. Go see it, it lives up to the hype.

80’s Trash of the Week: Masters of the Universe

1987 was a great year for the action movie. Arnie would solidify his action-star status with Predator; Paul Verhoeven would bring us to new levels of bleak satire and gore with Robocop; and Frank Langella would reach the nadir of his career as Skeletor in Masters of the Universe.
With a budget of $17 million that ballooned to $22 million, the He-Man movie had more money than Predator, Robocop, and Full Metal Jacket. Most of it seems to have been spent on an extended, boring chase sequence on hoverboards through alleys in the abandoned California town. The effects aren’t bad, it’s just horribly choreographed and directed. At one point when He-Man is supposed to be flipping over and coming back at a baddie flying after him, they just show Dolph Lundgren’s head upside down. Great job. Darth Milk and I aren’t good at the maths, but we figured out how you take a budget millions larger than 3 classics and get a crappy movie:

$17 million^greyskull = CRAP

For you non-mathnerds, that means that when you expound millions of dollars to the power of greyskull, which is an imaginary number signifying infinite cheesiness, you will get the steaming poo pile that is Masters of the Universe.

The movie should have been a great success; it was based on a wildly popular toy and cartoon series, which I remember watching and loving. It was simple: Prince Adam was the Clark Kent of Eternia. With his Pete Rose haircut and gentle nature, no one would suspect that when he drew his magical sword and uttered “By the power of Greyskull!” he would transform into He-Man, savior of the planet. He was the only man powerful enough to stand up to Skeletor, the skull-headed conqueror who wanted to enslave all living creatures. He had some buddies to round out your toybox, too. Man-at-Arms, who had a G.I. Joe helmet and a porn mustache; Teela, the spunky gal sidekick who could hold her own in a fight, and being a kid’s cartoon, we needed an animal and an annoying whiny character, so we had Cringer the Tiger and Orko, the flying douchebag. The cartoon is an 80’s classic, and He-Man would give a moral to the story at the end of each episode, to keep us buying toys instead of smoking crack and stabbing each other.

Frank Langella needed money

When Mattel approached the Cannon Group to make a movie about He-Man, their fate was sealed. Infamous for such productions as the Death Wish sequels and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, they made some of the most memorable cheesefests of the 80’s, and Masters of the Universe is no exception. The cartoon sprang from toys originally made for the 80’s classic Conan the Barbarian, which had a bounty of breasts, blood and beefcake, and was deemed unsuitable for children. (Little did they know we all watched it on HBO anyway). So what was Mattel to do with all those toy molds? Give them some spare laser guns from Star Wars ripoffs, come up with some goofy names, and blammo, kids get to play with musclebound swordsmen in furry red banana hammocks without being associated with one of the most brutal fantasy movies of all time.

Surely pitched as Conan meets Star Wars

The toys were a big hit and spawned the aforementioned cartoon, but by 1987 He-Man was sort of played out. I was a junior in high school sporting my fro-mullet and I can’t recall what the kiddies were watching by then, but Darth Milk was probably watching Mario Brothers and jumping on mushrooms in his backyard. Kids were playing Nintendo, and didn’t care for He-Man’s moral condescension and proselytizing anymore.

Even Orko boycotted this film

First-time director Gary Goddard was handed the reins, and Dolph Lundgren got the starring role after Sly Stallone snubbed his nose at it. He had made Cobra for Cannon the year before, probably the most ridiculous of his films. Dolph just came off of playing Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, and rivaled Arnold Schwarzenegger in both size and speech impediment, but never had the charisma. I liked Dolph in Showdown in Little Tokyo, and he does have a Master’s Degree in Chemical Engineering, but he’s pretty dry, and a forgettable He-Man.

“Around here, it’s against the law to wear banana hammocks.”

The rest of the cast isn’t much better. Frank Langella dons some white makeup and becomes Skeletor, relishing the role, but most of the time he just gets to sit on the throne and look ugly. Max Von Sydow was the best part of Flash Gordon, but he wasn’t covered in bumpy white latex. Billy Barty plays a little hairy dwarf troll named Gwildor, created for the movie as a replacement for Orko, the little floating wizard in a hajib and cape. While Orko is missed, mostly because I wanted to see how bad he’d look, Billy Barty is one of my favorite little people actors, and manages to craft a decent character out of the horrible dialogue he’s given. He and Langella end up being the movie’s only saving graces.

Luckily they land in a California town with a population of 5.

The movie also ends up being mostly set on Earth, for budgetary reasons. Now, I don’t know how filming in abandoned Whittier, California was cheaper than finding some spot of desert to call Eternia. They begin out in the rocky wastes, where He-Man and friends are fighting with Skeletor’s minions, who look like the Star Destroyer crew from Star Wars. They escape into Gwildor’s little hobbit hole, where he shows them The Key, which looks like a medieval anal torture device. It’s a musical key that opens portals to anywhere in the universe, and Skeletor has the other one already. So of course, they escape using the Key, and wind up behind a school in California.

Saurod is still bitter that he couldn’t get a date to his prom.

This subplot seems aimed at getting teens to go see a kid movie; Courteney Cox and her musician boyfriend are making out in his convertible when Gwildor steals their bucket of fried chicken with a grappling hook. Eventually they meet up when Skeletor sends his bad guys- Beast Man, Blade, Saurod, and Karg- through the portal to create some shenanigans. They beat up a coach and trash the gym, which was decorated for the prom! How horrible. A local cop, the dependable jerk character actor James Tolkan, gets involved and does the usual stupid stuff to further a plot- arrest the good guy, play with the Key so the bad guys can find them, and otherwise be a pain in the ass.

Surfin’ Etern-I-A

The script by David Odell, who wrote the classic The Dark Crystal and the turd Supergirl, is definitely once again in the turdpile of the spectrum. He doesn’t even have anyone say “By the power of Greyskull!” because He-Man never has to transform. If they had rented a tiger to be Battlecat, kept things in the desert- which can’t be that expensive, since so many shitty B movies have been shot out there- this could have been much better. Moving it to Earth and giving us useless teenager characters confuses everything, and makes the battle scenes have to be in places like a music store. When Skeletor finally arrives, he rolls down Main Street like a float in the Thanksgiving Day parade, and they couldn’t afford any extras, so California looks completely deserted except for a cop, two students, and the guy running the guitar shop.

“And what’s that? Skeletor has shot down the Snoopy balloon!”

I wanted to at least get some laughs, but it’s monumentally boring and barely worth watching to laugh at. At 106 minutes long, it drags on forever, inserting plots about Courteney Cox’s parents having died in a plane crash, which lets Skeletor’s hench-babe Evil-Lyn trick her into giving up the Key. And her boyfriend’s musical memory helps save them in the end. In the director’s commentary, Goddard says that the original ending made preview audiences weep openly; all I can say is, it was probably over wasting 2 hours of their lives watching Dolph Lundgren try to enunciate in English.

You may have “the power,” but I have a gold lamé cape.

The final battle between Skeletor and He-Man is decent, and he does get to yell “I… have… The POWER!!” as he draws his sword. You can see they spent a lot of money on effects, but mostly it’s repetitive, unexciting battles between people with laser guns in suburbia. When He-Man is finally captured, Blade tortures him with a laser whip, and they didn’t even bother syncing Lundgren’s flinches with the animated whip. Flash Gordon of seven years prior looks and feels better, and is a lot more fun.

Villain rule #48: Never build a bottomless pit in the throne room.

I will say that the costumes for the creatures, such as Saurod and Gwildor, are quite good. Cannon would go on to create more atrocious films like Captain America before their death knell was sounded in the early 90’s. I will thank them from the bottom of my teenage heart for 1985’s Lifeforce, with its abundance of boobies. The 80’s wouldn’t be the same without Golan-Globus and Cannon Group films, but sometimes that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Beers Required to Enjoy: 3
Could it be remade today? IMDb Pro lists it. God help us all.
Quotability Rating: Zero
Cheese Factor: High
High Points: Final battle; Billy Barty
Low Point: Courteney Cox goes back in time to save her parents (weep)
Gratuitous Boobies: Nary a boobie. Needed a She-Ra cameo.

Zatôichi – No Happy Endings from this Masseur

I’ll cry when I’m done killin’.

I haven’t watched a traditional Japanese modern-day drama by Ozu or the like in so long, that I’ve forgotten that normal films come from that country. Zatôichi isn’t really weird, but Takeshi Kitano’s loving remake of the last film in the 26-episode series is definitely tongue in cheek, but still respects the character and gives us a good story.

Zatôichi movies all follow a pattern- the blind masseur wanders into town, making money by doing acupuncture and massages, as a low-caste blind man would do in the Edo period. Through his heightened senses, he slowly learns of the yakuza or corrupt officials oppressing the local people, and eventually has a showdown with them, slaughtering them with his hidden sword cane. It’s sort of like some Westerns in that way; the stranger coming to town, who just happens to be a master gunfighter. One of the movies was made into Blind Fury with Rutger Hauer in the 80’s.

The movies began in 1962 and ran until the late 70’s, with Zatôichi played by Shintarô Katsu, who starred and directed in the finale to the series in 1989. I saw that one on the Sundance channel a while back, and while some reviewers called it a muddy mess, it was decent fun for me. Takeshi Kitano, star and director of many brutally violent yet also pensive yakuza films such as Fireworks and also touching family films like Kikujiro, remade the last movie as a homage to the character; his take has a touch of camp and keeps the bloody swordfights, but manages to make them seem more comic than brutal.

Reign in Blood

Kitano’s style usually mingles quiet introspection, slice of life dialogue, and then of course the infamous sudden bursts of violence. This is no different; he doesn’t mind lingering on a shot of peasants working the fields while Zatoichi enters town, meeting a passing ceremony on the way. He finds music in daily life- as the farmers hoe their rows, the score matches their beats; the staccato slaps of raindrops hitting rooftops, sandals on wooden walkways. This helps keep our interest between scenes of action and drama, and paints a vivid picture of romanticized village life in the samurai era.

Dude looks like a lady

The story weaves three separate plots quite well- Zatôichi’s entrance to town and how he uncovers a corrupt gambling den that fleeces and murders unwary businessmen; a pair of geisha brother and sister who seek vengeance for their murdered parents; and finally, a retired ronin with a sick wife, who relents and hires out his sword to one of the town’s three warring gang leaders who has bloody ambitions on the other two. This sounds complicated, but Kitano winnows out the unessential in the storylines, and gives us brief flashbacks so we understand everyone’s motivations. The three plots converge in a superlative syzygy of slaughter, and all the sleazy town’s secrets are revealed.

Thumbs up!

He manages to keep just the right level of camp and humor throughout. Zatôichi isn’t as campy a character as let’s say, Hanzo the Razor, who was a government agent ferreting out corruption through swordplay and sexual interrogation, but a blind masseur with a sword-cane who can slice out candle wicks and slaughter a dozen swordsmen in the dark can’t take itself too seriously, or it gets silly (like Daredevil, which was inspired by it). For example, one of the village characters is a fat kid who runs in circles around his home with a spear all day, “training for battle.” And when one of the villagers finds out that a geisha girl is actually a guy, we see him in similar make-up later, wondering if he is pretty enough to be one, too.

Fans of over-the-top ninja epics like the forgettable Shinobi: Heart Under Blade and the classic Azumi may find this a little slow, and Kitano’s stylized fights too artistic. Like the old jidaigeki films, the fights are often finished with a single blow. The blind swordsman’s reverse hand sword cane style is sneaky infighting, so protracted battles wouldn’t make sense. Many people didn’t like that all the blood is computer-generated, either. Kitano wanted it to “look like flowers blossoming across the screen,” and it does soften the body count of the movie, which nears Lone Wolf and Cub proportions.

So You Think You Can Dance, circa 1683

Kitano is a stone-faced actor probably best-known in the U.S. as the teacher in Battle Royale, but he is an actor-director best compared to Clint Eastwood here. Imagine if Eastwood took something like “Kung Fu,” or Billy Jack and remade it artfully with a touch of camp and played the lead himself. That would be the equivalent. It works, but he does dip a little too deeply into nostalgia at times. The film ends with a musical number including all the villagers from the cast tap-dancing in wooden sandals on a stage to Japanese taiko drumming. Darth Milk and I didn’t mind; any chance to bust out the conga drum and play along is much appreciated.

The movie is good fun and if you want some lighter samurai action fare, this is 2 hours well spent.

The Fury … how I feel about Brian De Palma

I’m going to admit up front that Brian De Palma kicked my puppy as a child, and that’s why I don’t like his movies. I think he makes good trash, but when people start comparing him to Hitchcock I get apoplectic. Hitchcock made good trash too, but he elevated it, De Palma wallows in it. Hitch also built his movies around dialogue– I just watched The Birds again and forgot how much of it has nothing to do with the story; yet, we are riveted to the screen. The entire first act is spent in getting Tippi Hedren to the little town that will be swarmed by angry peckers, and it’s still interesting. The whole premise is ridiculous, but Hitchcock manages to make us terrified of terns, toucans and ptarmigans.

Young Amy, and Jim Belushi’s first role in the back left.

The Fury, on the other hand, beats us over the head with action and manages to be pretty boring. Peter (Kirk Douglas) and his son Robin are on an Israeli beach when they are beset by terrorists; it turns out to be an elaborate plot by his buddy Childress (the always-evil John Cassavetes) to kidnap Robin. Later the story picks up in Chicago, where Peter is trying to track down his son, with Cassavetes still trying to kill the hardy bastard. We learn that the reason Robin was taken is that he has powerful psychic powers, and that leads to a college psychology experiment where Amy Irving’s brain is hooked up to a Lionel train set. She plays Gillian, who is psychic too, and Peter seeks her help in finding his boy. Amy was one of the nasty kids in Carrie, and now she gets her chance to throw telekinetics around; unfortunately when she looks scared, her face twists up like Gilda Radner’s, and it’s hard to take seriously.

Cassavetes once again exuding evil.

I heard it told recently that Brian De Palma’s oeuvre is best appreciated when you realize that they are all comedies, and as I looked back, I felt a sense of peace replace my apoplexy at his directing style. The Fury works great as a comedy. Take De Palma’s horror masterpiece Carrie, about a powerful psychic girl… and double it. Now there are two, a girl and boy, and they are being trained by the government as weapons by Charles Durning.

Robin has anger management issues.

There are things that make no sense until you realize it works as farce, or as a spoof of Hitchcock that Mel Brooks would envy. For example, after hijacking a cop’s car to escape, Kirk Douglas tells them to leave the car after the bad guys chasing them have been dispatched to the courtesy table in a fiery display. Then he inexplicably drives the car off the dock into Lake Michigan. Sure, he’s a government agent and has survived numerous attempts on his life by the skin of his teeth, but wouldn’t you at least drive to the train station?

Slow… mo…tion…

Then there’s an extended slow-motion sequence when one of the psychics escapes, and someone dies in the process. They never seem to learn that if you’re touching one of these kids as they undergo their dramatic episodes, blood will start pouring from your orifices like you’d chugged a six-pack of Ebola cola. At first, Amy Irving runs like she’s heading for her lover’s arms, and then Hester (Carrie Snodgrass) is chasing after her, and then the bad guys in their sedans, and finally Kirk Douglas shows up with a gun, all in gut-wrenching slow-motion emphasizing every grimace on their faces. As drama, or action, it’s torture… but as a comedy, I couldn’t stop laughing.

Now you’ll look up to me, Dad…

De Palma does manage some cute shots- he loves reaction shots in reflected glass- and I liked the scene with Mother Knuckles, an elderly woman Douglas befriends after busting into a tenement, but mostly this must be viewed as comedy. How else are we to take it when his psychic son Robin, who believes him dead at the hands of Arab terrorists, just happens to see a gaggle of sheiks at the Old Chicago amusement park, and plays havoc with them on the tilt-a-whirl? Better yet, when the kid finally cracks during his emotional reunion with Dad, as they dangle from the rooftops. There’s no way to take this seriously, and I don’t think De Palma wants us to. He’s riffing off the B movies of the past. De Palma had to know how ridiculous this all was, and that he got the job because of the material’s similarity to Carrie, so he just went nuts with it. It’s interminably long at two hours, but in the right mindset, The Fury can be very entertaining.

You won’t like her when she’s angry.
John Cassavetes’s explosive performance.

What everyone remembers is the tacked-on ending, where Amy unleashes her psychic angst on John Cassavetes. It would be topped a few years later with the head-exploding in David Cronenberg’s Scanners, but it’s hard to beat Cassavetes’s severed head floating out of frame in slow motion. The movie ends abruptly afterward, and we assume Gillian escapes. I have fonder memories of Firestarter, which was goofy but at least had a comprehensible story arc. That’s saying a lot. De Palma has a lot of style, but unlike say Michael Mann, who can use it to craft a gripping storyline, De Palma seems unable to balance them both very well. Sure, he’s made some good movies- Scarface worked because it updated a scenery-chewing gangsploitation film to the 80’s, The Untouchables likewise comes from an era where bombastic characters are expected. In Carrie, Sissy Spacek’s amazing performance, Stephen King’s archetypal story, and De Palma’s stylish direction converged perfectly. In Carlito’s Way he managed to tune things down a bit and let the good story do the talking, and material like Raising Cain lent itself to his excesses.

This is as terrifying as the prospect of efficient gas-powered vehicles!

If you watch De Palma’s movies as a fan of Hitchcock and old gangster films, and imagine John Waters is next to you helping heckle the screen, you can enjoy even his most indulgent films like Snake Eyes, which was a miserable failure. If only he’d gotten face-contorting performances out of Gary Sinise and used a lot of slow-motion and Hitchcockian Dutch angles, we could have had at least a comedy masterpiece.

Batman Begins … Revisited

In anticipation for The Dark Knight, I finally got around to watching my HD disc of Batman Begins. After hearing oodles of comic book nerds complain about Katie Holmes, and Gordon driving the Batmobile, I wanted a fresh look to see if it’s as good as I remembered, or if it was just great compared to Joel Schumacher’s bat-nipple camp-a-rama and Tim Burton’s Gothic take, which concentrated more on the villains.
I wanted to see how this held up after Iron Man. The movie still has the weak points of Katie Holmes’s superfluous Rachel Dawes and Gordon’s goofy Batmobile adventure, but other than that, it’s one of the best superhero movies yet made. Christian Bale gives a nuanced performance, only dipping into the well of Patrick Bateman when he’s expected to play the sleazy playboy. We meet him as a man consumed with the desire for revenge, whose morals barely keep him from killing the man who murdered his parents in broad daylight. This is where we first meet fiery Rachel Dawes, the one Assistant D.A. in town who can’t be bought. Her fury at Bruce’s attempt at vengeance is what sends him on his pilgrimage to find what he must do. He first confronts mob boss Carmine Falcone; he tried to corrupt the young Wayne heir by putting a hit on the man who killed his parents, and this adds a layer of depth to the story. When faced with Falcone’s brute power and control over every element of justice in the city, Bruce realizes that facing him head-on is a death sentence for him and the people he cares about. He has to find another way. He needs to learn how the criminal element works.

Stop calling me “padwan,” dude.

This eventually leads him to China; a place he can disappear and infiltrate a gang of thieves, and toughen himself for the battle ahead. He is still aimless and confused, picking fights with groups, penitence for letting Rachel and his parents down. When Liam Neeson and the Brotherhood of Shadows find him, he is once again tempted down the wrong path, and this second time it nearly works. The movie’s complexities are what make it so good. We spend a lot of time watching him train, and such montages are commonplace, but here they build a bond between Bruce and his mentor, making the inevitable betrayal hurt that much more. While having three villains hurt the previous Batman movies, here they are woven together, using each other for their own purposes, creating a singular enemy unbeknown to some members of the triumvirate. It’s clever, and works much better than teams of rival super-villains ganging up for shallow reasons.

We’re telling you you’ve got issues, mate.

Bruce has allies as well; we see the young Detective Gordon as the lone good cop in a sea of corruption, and trusty Alfred kept things running for him while he fled his problems. Michael Caine is the real glue that holds the film together, since we believe everything he says and he’s wise enough to know how far to push the comic relief. Alfred and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox “Q” character together give us a foundation to make the ridiculous comic-book world believable. Yes, the latest reboot of the Batman franchise is much darker, but in essence it is still a rich man who dresses up to fight crime. The film takes great pains to justify the bat costume, and succeeds- but Caine and Freeman’s little smirks and grins at Bruce Wayne’s issues help us along as the ears get explained as communicator antennas, and the cape– shown in The Incredibles to be a deadly bit of foppish extravagance– here becomes a hang-glider, so the bat has more tricks up his belt than the grappling hooks we’ve seen since the Adam West days.

It runs on testosterone.

The film also dips into the true reboot of the Batman that began when Frank Miller wrote The Dark Knight Returns. The bat-a-rangs aren’t little flying deus ex machinas, but more akin to ninja shuriken, made by hand on a grinder as painful, untraceable calling cards. It’s too bad we never see a criminal in the E.R. biting the bullet as a nurse pulls one out of his forehead with a pair of forceps. The new Batmobile most resembles the crazy riot tank Miller used from DKR, toned down into a cross between hot rod and Tonka Toy, tapping into every male moviegoer’s inner 6 year old. It’s even sillier than the ridiculous Burton-era vehicle, but when we see it in action, plowing through concrete and stomping squad cars like a monster 4×4, all is forgiven. Miller also wrote Batman: Year One, which brought the series back down to earth in the gritty streets, and built Batman again from the ground up. It’s from here that we get Carmine Falcone— played with delicious glee by Tom Wilkinson– and the Chicago setting for Gotham makes an above-the-law don running the city utterly believable. Gordon’s sleazy partner is underappreciated, and looks like he came from a Serpico-inspired cop movie from the 70’s. Just one look at him with a badge, and you know the city is corrupt top to bottom.

We get to see Batman learn the ropes, too- his first foray into crime-fighting isn’t all that perfect. He does get better, and his first strike at Falcone has us on the edge of our seats, showing how he strikes fear into the hearts of criminals and uses their panic against them. Nolan also took inspiration from the excellent Batman: The Animated Series, which was surprisingly brutal. When Batman pulls a bungee jumping act to get a corrupt cop to talk, it’s something we’ve never seen him do in movies before; he always had a supernatural ability to appear where crime was occurring, and he never had to do any sleuth work. Batman’s roots are in Detective Comics, after all.

What? I’ve got something on my face?

The fight scenes are a bit forgettable, reminiscent of the Bourne movies, which make better use of the close-up, jarring quick-cut method. Nolan does keep the fights nasty, brutish and short as they ought to be, especially when he’s up against multiple opponents. They seem believable and real, and you’re never wondering why they don’t just gang up on the good guy… they are. This foundation once again prepares us to accept the unreal, such as Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow. He’s yet another over-the-top character reined in perfectly to fit the film’s dark world, a mob-bought psychiatrist with sick fantasies of his own. The film does have flaws, but they aren’t with its villains, but its heroes.

Gary Oldman plays Gordon perfectly, but he is given very little to do except establish that he is not corrupt, and that he’s willing to help this unconventional vigilante clean up the city. He’s almost too much of a milquetoast everyman, and it feels like Oldman wanted to veer away from his over-the-top villain characters, and plays it too bland. When he echoes “I gotta get me one of these,” last uttered by Will Smith in Independence Day, it hits a sour note. It was the wrong thing for the beaten-down good guy to finally pipe up and say, when he sees the bad guys getting taken down.

Katie really nailed this scene.

I hadn’t seen Katie Holmes in anything since Go and The Ice Storm, and she seemed fine in those. Here she’s not given much to do except be a one-note character, chiding Bruce for his selfish moping, and not living up to his parents’ heroic philanthropy. I’d like to blame this on her future as a Scientologist baby factory, but it feels like the script. Unless there’s a lot of bad acting on the cutting room floor. It would have taken a great actress to do much with so little screen time and dialogue, and we all know Katie Holmes is not that actress.

That’s a small nitpick at what is a great script, executed with panache by Christopher Nolan, who wouldn’t have been my first pick for a Batman film. I was really interested when Darren Aronofsky was attached, and The Fountain remains one of my favorite underappreciated films. His Batman would have certainly looked interesting, and seeing Year One through the gritty, paranoid filter of Pi would have been something, but I think Nolan was obviously the right choice. Memento‘s complex web of motives is evident in the trifecta of villains in Begins; the noir edge of his masterpiece Following translated well to gritty Gotham.
The movie wisely never shows the bodies of its villains, and gave us a 3-year tease for the next one, all beginning with that little Joker card in an evidence bag. It set the bar high for superhero movies, and is on par with my other favorites- Iron Man, Spider-Man, and 1978’s Superman. Even if you include non-hero comic book movies like Sin City, A History of Violence, 300, and Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, it’s high on the list. We’ll see if Zack Snyder’s take on the uber-graphic novel Watchmen takes its place next year. The Dark Knight is assured to be as good if not better than its predecessor, but Superman is in the emo toilet in Bryan Singer’s incapable hands, so Watchmen is our only hope.